Everyone has had that teacher or authority figure who went the extra mile to inspire and help them become who they truly were. Robin Williams is that teacher in Dead Poet’s Society, a film by Peter Weir starring the aforementioned Williams and a young Ethan Hawke, among a few other talented, but lesser-known actors. The enrollees to Welton Boys’ Academy are accustomed to a regimented and orderly existence of obedience and subordination. John Keating (Williams) throws a wrench into their comfortable school lives by introducing them to poetry with an uplifting passion. He rebukes a reputable essay supporting an established belief at the academy — that poetry is measurable — by instructing the boys to rip the pages out of their textbook. A poem’s worth is not determined by a rating scale, but what one feels when reading it and how it influences the emotions.
The boys begin sneaking out at night and reading poems to each other in a cave. Their first escapade is one of the film’s defining moments, jam-packed with plenteous youthful energy. When they return from the “meeting” something is different about them. They are more daring. Neil decides to audition for a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Knox resolves to pursue a girl he is infatuated with, and Charlie changes his name to Nwanda and engages in a series of stunts, each more daring than the next. In a way, the film is less about Jack Keating’s teachings than it is about how they affect the students subjected to them.
And the effect is a varying one. Neil, whose father rejects his dreams of becoming an actor, is pulled out of the school. Unable to cope, he commits suicide, in a scene that is almost painful to watch. Knox summons his courage, and goes after Chris, the young woman of his affections. We don’t really find out how this arc ends. Charlie is ultimately expelled for attacking a boy who blames Neil’s death on their beloved Mr. Keating. Mr. Keating is fired in the end.
I think a lot of people remember the transformational coming of age story of Dead Poet’s Society. That is easily the most enjoyable part to watch. Seeing Williams fired up about the written word, doing things like making his students kick a ball after reciting poetry, and urging them to engage in their unique bizarre walks in the courtyard is a certainly a satisfying experience. What they don’t seem to remember, is what a tragedy the film is. A boy is killed, and the remaining members of the group (save for Charlie) don’t possess the gumption to do what’s right in the end. Nobody tells the administration the truth about what caused the incident, and a man who loves to teach, with a passion, is removed from his post. Sure, they all stand up on their desks in the end, out of respect, or is it be out of guilt, for their deviance from Keating’s principles?
Nonetheless, Dead Poet’s Society is a masterful production. Robin Williams’ impression of John Wayne playing Macbeth is cause alone to view it. A talent gone too soon, his body of work sets a definite standard of excellence. Dead Poets Society is no different.